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Miserable in name only

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February 2020 Issue

An unrelenting energy-sapping climb to Miserable Ridge reveals a wonderful tops campsite.

It’s a long haul onto the tops from Rapid Creek Hut in the lower Hokitika Valley. More so when the route taken is by the aptly named Miserable Ridge. The 1200m climb is stretched out over 4km of ridgeline. And it’s steep.

Tim and I had begun our trip near the Hokitika Gorge Swingbridge, a popular tourist attraction on the West Coast.

Out of the ute, we began the trudge alongside the boisterous and intimidating flow of the Hokitika River, first over farm flats then riverbed, then the old greasy pack track up to the cableway and Rapid Creek Hut.

The cableway is quite something. Spanning the river on a single 100m-long wire, the small aluminium cage runs trampers across in a long swoop to mid-river and then a slow grind on the winch to the far side. It’s a buzz to zoom out to the middle, airily observing mountain, river and sky as Tim winds me to the far side.

It’s a one-at-a-time job and once on the far side, we strolled along the easy terrace to Rapid Creek Hut where we could survey Miserable Ridge rising above the deep forests like a looming green and brown monster – and about as scary.

I had been to these parts many times before, guiding the five-day crossing of Whitcombe Pass from the Rakaia in Canterbury to the West Coast. The terrain is big, bold, fraught with danger and regularly challenged me.

Up and at it was the only choice, so we hauled our packs on and stepped out along the pulsing Hokitika to reach Rapid Creek and the beginning of the ascent to Miserable Ridge.

Rapid Creek has a fearsome reputation. It’s steep, bouldery, multi-level, and never easy to cross. It was the bain of the Whitcombe Pass route because it lies barely two hours from the road end and yet, when it runs high, has forced many trampers to camp on the terrace beside the river virtually in sight of both the hut and the road end.

Using the cableway to cross the Hokitika River is fun. Photo: Pat Barrett

For us though, there was no fording required as our route lay on the hut side of the river, and it was also with some pleasant surprise that I discovered a new swingbridge was now in place upriver, below the gorge, allowing trampers safe and assured access in and out of the valley.

The route up begins at the bridge, where a sign indicates the roughly cut track (made by volunteers of the Permolat group) snaking off into the West Coast jungle like a rainforest roller coaster. Up and down is the measure of the way, vertical in places, hauling up on a bit of rope, or creepers, slipping in the mud beneath to gasp up onto another small terrace.
It’s unrelenting.

By late afternoon, we near the bush edge but this too is interminable as the now hummocky ridgeline disguises many shallow hollows into which the track dives, immersing us in dracophyllum and tall tussock through which we fight to emerge onto steady ground.

It’s energy-sapping and we beg for release from the tiger’s tail we have been gripping for several hours.

Our release is finding the hoped-for campsite at the 1140m contour – at the top edge of the scrub and just before the spur kicks into overdrive and heads onto a near-vertical ship prow of tussock and razorback to gain the summit of Miserable Ridge. That can wait, we are camping – and what a camp it is.

A swampy tarn provides dubious refreshment and a little tussock fold provides a tent site. The deepening evening light enhances all we survey from our lofty perch and it is magnificent. With the blown-out, raggedy head of Rapid Creek to the south, the impossibly deep trench of the Hokitika to the north, and the high summits of the Alps to the east, we have the view.

Dawn sees us creeping steadily onto and over the prow guarding the ridge crest. Beneath our boots is airy space and the steel grey conduit of the Hokitika River snaking through the Westland jungle.

We reach the ridge and the view expands to include the Westland plains, Mikonui headwaters and the lumpy tops of Miserable itself. It’s grand, and a relief.

On we go, scampering along like two-year-olds now, heading for a pleasant basin where numerous tarns await and a quick boil-up and rest before considering the descent route to Explorer Hut.

Climbing through the tussock on the upper part of the spur leading to Miserable Ridge. Photo: Pat Barrett

Our ridge top reverie is superb, the day warms, tea’s up, mountains and routes beckon and all is good with the world. Such are the contrasts of the tramping life – one minute extreme effort and endeavour, the next peace and tranquillity.

The route off the ridge is steep, but tracked and easy to follow having been cut in the recent past by members of the Permolat group. It offers us a quick, yet tiring descent along a razorback, hanging over the headwaters of Vanina Stream, down to Point 1177m.

At Pt1122, the track proper commences. The high section is pleasant to walk and has numerous campsites, whilst the lower section is steep, rough and covered in flaxes, dracophyllum, and leatherwood scrub. It needs a bit of a tidy, but we aren’t complaining – it’s well marked and grants steady progress to Douglas Saddle and the little orange box of Explorer Hut. It’s home and it’s heaven to be here.

Residing in a little clearing, the hut setting is deep bush solitude: quiet, serene, and somnolent, especially on the warm day we encounter. It’s a feet up and read, sleep or wander afternoon, and we do all three. Well, I do the latter part. Tim is happy to occupy a bunk while I scamper over and down to the Mikonui River.

It’s a short distance to the river, but it involves quite a drop from the saddle. It’s steep and muddy and not particularly enthralling when I finally get there just on dusk. Because the trail was not that easy to follow, I kept my visit brief and returned to the hut before darkness fell.

With the deep trench of the Hokitika to the north, and the high
summits of the Alps to the east, we have the view

Rapid Creek Hut, from where Miserable Ridge can be seen rising above deep forest. Pat Barrett

There are few visitors to this place and the hut book showed just scattered entries through the year. I can imagine the river access from both the Mikonui and Hokitika sides precludes many attempts. We were pleased to have arrived in good conditions, even though our tops option came at the price of some serious sweat loss.

Our last day out proves to be more challenging than expected. It is quite a stretch from Douglas Saddle to Hokitika Gorge and the route is not that easy to follow. But the day was fine, and it was downhill – sort of.

The track across the saddle is an easy, muddy wander. Then the trail heads steeply down into Doctor Creek which provides good travel all the way down, with a couple of bypasses as the track avoids spectacular Smith Gorge. We then sauntered along and promptly lost the way, or at least misplaced the turn-off which is supposed to head onto the high terrace above the creek and into Surveyors and later Minnow creeks.

Time lost. Back-track, look, back-track, bush-bash, look, map out, search, forward, backwards. More lost time.

On a positive note, we did find two pair of whio playing in river rapids and they were a delight to watch.

When we finally rediscovered the track, we saw the marker was shielded by regrowth.

We climbed the hill to Surveyors Creek, then – nothing. More searching and fossicking around in frustratingly thick forest and greasy gullies. We found the trail again and had good travel into Minnow Creek where we still had to keep a sharp lookout as the track dives in and out of the creek which gathers pace and width as we near the Hokitika.

A near-vertical descent dropped us from a high shoulder to the open gravel bed of the Hokitika.

From here it was plod time, and we walked out as fast as possible to Hokitika Gorge. We briefly considered a ford of the river directly over to where my ute was parked, but called it off as the water was discoloured and running fast and high.

So plod it was, and a long one, made longer by the lack of any continuous track and, as we approached the gorge, no markers, a surging river, quicksand, thick tutu growth and small bluffs.

A track was eventually spied, overgrown of course, leading up a shallow gully to the bench above the gorge where we struck gold – a wide DOC tourist track, still under construction, cutting around the hillside above the deep and powerful flow of the river. We were relieved, and now truly homeward bound, just a short walk back up the road to the car park.

But when we arrived, we found glass and scattered clothes on the ground. My ute, and the one next to it, had been done over. The vandals didn’t destroy our achievement though, or the beauty of the West Coast ridge camp.

But it was a miserable end.

Total Ascent
Three days. Hokitika Gorge to Rapid Creek Hut, 2-3hr; Hut to Miserable ridge, 5-6hr; Ridge to Explorer Hut, 4-5hr; Hut to Hokitika Gorge, 6-8hr
Rapid Creek Hut ($5, four-bunks), Explorer Hut (free, four-bunks)
From Whitcombe Valley Road

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Miserable Ridge loop (gpx, )

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